Ishmael Reed’s play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” premiered at the Nuyorican Poets Café this past Thursday evening. The play aims to provide a historical counterpoint to ‘Hamilton,’ Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway success based on historian Ron Chernow’s biography of the titular founding father.
The chuckles of the crowd at the Nuyorican as actors delivered heartfelt historical monologues and biting jabs at Miranda rang at once righteous and hollow. The prolific American poet and writer Ishmael Reed, 80, known for his challenging political satire, sets out with the admirable goal of righting historical inaccuracies and forcing accountability for educators and storytellers. But when it comes to exactly who he should take aim at…well, that’s a more complicated question.
Thursday night was the play’s first full staging. It received a 4-show public reading in January, and a detailed gist of the script exists in Reed’s online CounterPunch articles. The show follows a bumbling Miranda visited by the ghosts of those that Chernow’s Hamilton biography leaves out. We hear from slaves owned by the Schuyler estate, Native Americans, an indentured servant, and Harriet Tubman. We see what are very likely to be more accurate versions of Alexander Hamilton discussing his involvement in the slave trade and his endorsement of an elitist government, and George Washington reveling in his reputation as “Town Destroyer” to Native Americans.
Most of the play consists of these ghosts trying to convince Miranda that he was utterly duped by Chernow and complicit in sanitizing the wicked history of America’s founding fathers. There are more than a couple pot shots taken at Miranda’s naiveté (“But Ron Chernow’s book is 800 pages long!” he laments) and post-Hamilton pursuits (particularly his role in the latest Mary Poppins movie).
As the play ends, Reed lays out his vision of justice. The onstage Miranda expresses regret for what he’s done (“I’ll never forgive myself”) and promises to donate 75% of his profits to organizations like Medgar Evers College and the Nuyorican Poets Café.
While the show plays out like a hit piece come to life onstage, it presents an uncomfortable truth. Miranda did see an opportunity in Chernow’s book and use it to launch himself into unprecedented fame and fortune. The version of history he presents is a white-washed one, even if the actors on stage suggest otherwise. The Haunting sets the record straight in this sense, and provides a valuable new set of historical perspectives typically not taught in American classrooms.
Reed’s criticisms, however biting, are welcome. But any questions about what good Hamilton has done for representation on the “Great White Way” (pun intended), and the historical conversation it’s opened up, go unanswered by Reed.
As valuable as Reed’s writing is, it’s disheartening to see so much of the responsibility of historical accountability fall to this fiercely talented Puerto-Rican American musical-writer. We all have our roles to play, Miranda included, but taking such special care to target his complicity feels off, or at least not pressing.
Perhaps Reed saw an opportunity in Hamilton. What better way to focus the world’s attention on the inaccuracies portrayed in the musical and biography than to name and shame the musical’s uncannily beloved creator? Perhaps The Haunting of Ron Chernow, or The Haunting of the Tainted American Psyche, might not have garnered much attention.
I’m sure I’ll never be as insightful as Reed, so if this was the only way to expose the atrocities of our dearly held historical figures, then I recommend everyone buy tickets before the show closes on June 16 here.